Harold Ford Jr. and Barack Obama: Converging Paths, Diverging Politics?

Sen. Barack Obama campaigning for former Rep. Harold Ford Jr.’s failed bid for the senate in Tennessee in 2006. (Getty Images)

This article is part of an on-going series on black political thought on Barack Obama. In the past I’ve profiled the views of black Republicans, centrists and conservatives. Today’s feature is on DLC Chairman Harold Ford Jr.

In 2006, Sen. Barack Obama went to Tennessee to help his fellow Democrat, Harold Ford Jr., in his effort to win a hotly contested Senate seat. Both candidates, who’d spoken at the Democratic National Convention and were rising stars in the party appeared to be riding a new wave of young black Democrats rising to visible posts within the party. But most of us know how Ford’s campaign played out.

He lost his bid in a close election, quite possibly due to his race or his Christian pandering or his then “bachelor status” or all three. He now sits atop the Democratic Leadership Council, or the DLC, a “New Democrat” organization with self-described progressive-to-centrist policies. The same organization former President Bill Clinton used to launch himself onto the national stage.

It is often labeled by Liberals as the “conservative” wing of the Democratic Party.

During this presidential election season Ford, and his opinions on Obama, are hotly in demand. He’s appeared on all the networks, quite regularly appearing on FOX and MSNBC to offer his views on the race and on what Obama should and should not be doing. People have had varying reactions to this. Some see Ford as a friend of Obama giving some support, some advice and some criticism. Others view Ford as a secret Clinton supporter/sour grapes back-biter, being fickle in his decision to not endorse Obama, leaving some to speculate he is against the candidate.

He’s denied that, most notably to The Chicago Tribune last year where he claimed to have no “Obama envy,” saying he has long-standing friendships with both Obama and Sen. Hillary Clinton. And Clinton also supported Ford in his failed senate bid.

But what does Ford really think? Let’s look at the tape.

In early 2007, Ford offered Obama advice on campaigning as a black American. Repeating the oft heard refrain that Obama should “forget racial politics.

“As long as he works hard, is honest … and is not afraid to take his message anywhere in the country, he’ll do fine,” Ford said. “He can’t try to predict what other people may think or may do. All he can do is run the campaign that he’s capable of running.

“Do I think the fact that he’s black will be a factor in his campaign? Probably,” Ford said. “It would be a factor if two white guys were running. People talk about race regardless, so race is an issue that we deal with in America. I don’t think that will be a central part of his campaign at all.”

Later in May 2007, Ford told The Chicago Tribune an African American could win in the south.

The debate continues over the role that race played in Ford’s failed bid to become the first African-American in the South to be elected to the U.S. Senate since the 1870s. But he maintains Democrats — even black ones — can carry Tennessee and other Southern states, if they meet certain expectations.

“You’ve got to fit in the mainstream on values issues. You’ve got to be fair when it comes to economic policy. And you’ve got to be accountable to people,” he said. “Whoever wins the Democratic nomination [for president], if they fit that mold, they’ll be able to compete.”

In March this year, Ford wrote a column for the Knoxville News lambasting Tennessee Republicans for launching vicious attacks on Obama in an effort to smear him as sympathetic to terrorists, a “secret Muslim” and questionable in his support of Israel. Ford defended Obama, repeating that the candidate is a devout Christian and patriot.

Obama is a patriot, loves his country and stands shoulder-to-shoulder with McCain and others who seek to protect the country against terrorist attacks. Obama believes a new strategy is needed to maximize our fight against radical Islamic fundamentalists, like finishing the job against al-Qaida and the Taliban in Afghanistan and rooting out terrorists who are hiding out in Pakistan. After the tragedy of 9/11, no one should question the commitment of either political party when it comes to the seriousness of fighting terrorism.

But a month earlier in February Ford was criticizing Obama’s foreign policy ideas at Quinnipiac University in Connecticut (while defending his own vote to authorize the war in Iraq.) He called Obama’s Iraq withdrawal deadline unrealistic.

Now, he said, we have to do all we can to make that country a safer place. Ford’s experiences in Mesopotamia prove to him that presidential candidate Barack Obama is not being realistic with his promise to bring home the troops by Dec. 2009 if he is elected.

“Senator Obama himself says we have to be as careful in getting out as we were foolish and stupid in getting in,” Ford said. “I don’t think Al Qaida will let us leave by 2009.”

Then in April 2008, EbonyJet’s Big Ideas blog questioned Ford’s “neutrality” in the race.

Is it curious to anyone else how former Rep. Harold Ford, Jr. seems to be hedging a bit on his support for Barack Obama on his most recent television appearances?

Hard to tell what the real deal is, but it’s a marked change in tone from appearances just a couple of months ago when he seemed to lean much more in a partisan way toward the (senator) who campaigned actively for Ford in his own bid for Senate. Most curious is one phrase he keeps repeating, “If I were advising the Obama campaign..” or alternately “If I were advising my friend Barack Obama.”

Which begs the question, “Hey, aren’t you advising the Obama campaign?”

Big Ideas mentions that Ford, who is the vice chairman of Merrill Lynch, has been a big fund-raiser for Obama, but wondered why Ford isn’t a bigger player in the campaign. The blog implies that perhaps Ford was rebuffed by Obama and now he’s demonstrating his displeasure over this slight by being less diplomatic in his commentary.

Whatever the reason, lines like “If Senator Clinton wins with 8 to 10 percentage points, there are legitimate questions about Barack” don’t sound like the words of a content friend and supporter.

But perhaps there’s an easier explanation. If Ford is being groomed and courted as a regular MSNBC commentator in the Joe Scarborough/former House member mold, all the bending over backward to sound uninvolved might simply be part of his play to solidify his TV image as that of a fair observer who can look at all sides.

Then again, maybe Ford asked Obama to be in his upcoming wedding and Obama turned him down like he did Tavis Smiley.

Some of Big Ideas’ criticisms may have come from appearances like this one Ford made on MSNBC where he said Obama had to win Indiana.

The Nashville Post’s Post Politics Blog had this to say about Ford’s comments:

From that perspective, and in the wake of Hillary Clinton’s win in the Pennsylvania primary, Ford just set a political bar for the black politician that surpassed him in prominence.

“You have to win Indiana,” Ford told Barack Obama (via an interview on MSNBC). And, Ford added, Obama has to “steamroll” Clinton in the other state with a primary two Tuesdays from now, North Carolina.

The Obama camp will not publicly embrace that equation. But for him to truly regain the momentum he captured during his February surge, most party pros will see Ford’s formulation as spot-on.

Commercial Appeal, a Memphis-based news site engaged in some Harold Ford Jr. as a running mate for Hillary Clinton talk, but there was nothing conclusive in the column and it’s mostly navel-gazing speculation. And most recently Ford was still brandishing about the notion of a “unity ticket.”

(Ford) says he wants Democrats to consider a shared Obama-Clinton or Clinton-Obama ticket in November.

Ford said on MSNBC last night, “I think it’s something that this party is going to have to think very seriously about in the next few weeks.”

So what did any of that tell us about Ford?

It seems to me that Ford, who I’ve seen both defend and criticize Obama on NBC’s “Meet the Press” repeatedly, isn’t necessarily the demon many have made him out to be. I often make fun of Ford, but that has more to do with his status as part of that special class of monied and connected black Americans.

Some of the hullabaloo is likely because Ford hasn’t declared who he’s supporting and that some Obama supporters are very sensitive to criticism of their candidate, even when it’s warranted. (I’m against the war, but even I think the Dec. 2009 promise his highly unrealistic. As for the “he has to win Indiana” thing, I don’t know what Ford was talking about there.) But when it’s come to the big smears, like what happened with the Tennessee Republicans, Ford has been out in the forefront in Obama’s defense.

Is there any envy there? Why not? Who isn’t envious of someone on the rise who could both make history and get to be the leader of the free world? But I don’t think Ford would do anything to jeopardize an administration he likely wants to join. Once the dust settles on the convention floor and Obama is the nominee it will become obvious what all the fund-raising was for. Ford is a pure politician. He may never make it to the senate or be governor of Tennessee, but he can ride the Obama wave to bigger and better things once he’s done playing pretty, pretty pundit with the networks. There is still political life left in Ford.

He’s not going to be so harsh to alienate himself from what could be his political future. There are still trails left for him to blaze.

18 thoughts on “Harold Ford Jr. and Barack Obama: Converging Paths, Diverging Politics?

  1. I was with you right up to the he wouldn’t do anything to hurt him.I’m no political junkie or pundit, but I’ve been following this season closely and at times have wondered if Ford is really a Democrat. I’ve also wondered if he secretly supports Clinton whom I’ve also wondered whether or not is a democrat.Personally, I think he’s hedging his bet and waiting to see who the winner is likely to be and then he will lean in that direction.

  2. ms.martin: I just don’t see Ford doing anything that would ruin his chances at succeeding as high as he can to gain in influence and capital within the party. And with the party establishment leaning Obama he’d have to be very nonsensical to try to damage Barack.It’s a cost versus benefit situation and it doesn’t benefit Ford to take down Obama in any way. Especially since he’s the likely nominee. So out of his own ambition I don’t see him trying to sabotage things now or after Obama becomes the nominee.

  3. It’s all politics. There is only but so much space for darker leadership, and as Melissa Lacewell Harris noted this very week, it seems that the trend is leaning for Americans to pick as well as ourselves, only male, light-skinned (or pecan), Ivy educated males. She, of mixed raced, Black and Caucasian heritage and light-skinned herself, took it there.There is only put so much room for Black Leaders on the national stage and then there is only so much room for those that will be PICKED and TRUSTED and who will know how to walk the fine line.I personally think the perception is: Obama cut the line and he was ‘pose to wait. Politics is about waiting your turn. Obama is just a maverick in doing it his way and not following the rules. LMAO!I think they were probably as good of friends as they needed each other but that is as far as it goes in politics. You don’t trust in politics like that. Not too competing politicians trying to fit in where they are marginalized cases. There was supposed to be room for only one Golden Boy — and no girls allowed.So it is not that deep and it is not that scandalous. Ford was supposed to venture after Hillary and his competition was supposed to be Martin O’Malley — not Barack Obama. I bet a lot of young politicos think and feel this way.Harold technically has paid a lot of dues no matter the value of altruism of his politics. It’s just life what they are going through. Obama is operating on a lateral scale of meritocracy while Harold is operating on another scale. There models are totally different. Harold is pedigree eventhough Black and Obama is not. However Obama radiants essence Harold can’t naturally produce. It is a very beautiful political landscape looking at the both of them diverge.So I think Harold cares but is also bitter in a sense. It is natural. But I don’t think it is all that campy of a Mexican soap opera. Maybe though Harold feels jilted since he was “there” first. We don’t know and can only speculate.Harold seems to be better off now however than he was as a mere junior congressman biding his time. He is getting paid now and it is probably cleaner living where he is in corporate America right now. He might just be breathing a whole lot lighter thinking about how he can jump back in now that Obama has completely changed the party.

  4. SnobWinning the nomination does not necessarily equate to winning. Some believe Hillary is trying to destroy Barack for a run herself in 2012.If so, Ford might be working toward that end. Clinton seems to be holding a many by the boys. As you have said yourself this thing has been over – why aren’t the party leaders moving? I’ve watched him laugh at Republican jokes regarding Obama, I’ve watched him sit quietly when as a Democratic he should have ben speaking out on behalf of Obama and I’ve watched him spiritedly defend Clinton.I just don’t trust him.

  5. AndreaGreat analysis that goes to the argument of what Ford might be feeling and how that lends to his analysis and support of Obama.However don’t forget there are Clintons involved that have made an art of playing on the very insecurities you’ve described.

  6. andrea: I really didn’t see much drama here either. That’s why I did the piece because I was curious to see if Ford was doing anything other than playing it safe and minding his own career, and that’s all it looks like he’s doing.ms.martin: It’s not about trust really. It’s about Ford caring about his own place within the party. As per people declaring, most folks are holding back out of respect and general awkwardness. (I’m sure there are some worried about the Obama campaign imploding or think he can’t win in the fall, but they’re not going to have a choice after Denver.) And while I, at times, find Hillary annoying she was the First Lady of the United States, is a current sitting senator and her husband was the last twice elected Democratic president. Some people are willing to say, “FU” to the Clintons. Others are waiting for the campaign to end. I think Ford, and everyone else who hasn’t declared, is waiting for this bitch to end, then plot the next move.

  7. ms.martin: I just think Hillary’s options are really limited. Michigan and Florida’s delegates will probably get seated, but that’s unlikely to go in her favor. Almost everyone in the party establishment is either with Obama or leaning in his direction.The most she can do is either:1) Push for a Veep spot (or something else she wants) because she does have a near equal amount of delegates that Obama wants in his camp when all this is over.2) Hold a brokered convention where she still doesn’t have enough delegates to win.I’m not worried about the superdelegates because this has been reported so much in the media that they are terrified of making this decision. After all, their purpose is to stop an unelectable candidate from taking the nomination, not someone who is popular and doing well. They’d basically have to say they don’t care if they potentially piss off their voters (and many of them are current office holders who are facing re-election.)So I think she’s just waiting for a miracle. That if she just works really hard and pushes really hard the political winds will change and some controversy will mortally wound Obama. Because she’s totally out of cards to play and I think we’re watching the last acts of a desperate woman.

  8. SnobI agree that her options as they relate to winning the nomination are minimal; however, you didn’t offer a position on the idea that she might be attempting to damage Obama for the general and run in 2012 and, if successful, would repay any loyalties from the 2008 campaign. Is it possible?

  9. ms.martin: No matter what Clinton does Ford is hitching his wagon to a winner. The man is only loyal to himself. If Obama is his best ticket to getting something “fancy” like Secy. of the Interior or Secy. of Commerce, he will be with Obama. He’s just waiting for it to be over.Clinton? Yeah. She could run again. She won’t win because I think this was her only shot. That’s why she’s fighting so hard. The only way she’ll be viable is if Obama completely flames out either by losing the general election or having a horrid four years. That way she could say, “I told you so.”But Ford is a political opportunist and relativist. Those Clinton gymnastics involve a lot of shoulda, coulda, wouldas. There’s nothing solid there, plus Clinton stock is on its way down. If Obama wins the general he is going to want a job in the Obama Administration. I just don’t think he’s that degree of loyal to anyone. Especially when Clinton is so weak that she can’t pay on her promises.But that’s my two cents.

  10. Make no mistake, the Dark Sith is a Clinton Lackey, plain and simple. How could you NOT understand that…do you not listen to him? He’s done everything he could to undermine Obama throughout this entire campaign and has been toting water for Hillpatine. That much is clear. Andrea is correct, Obama didn’t ‘ wait his turn’. As if ‘ Black’ and ‘ the right time’ have EVER been used in the same sentence in The United States of America. Part of the reason why I respect Obama so much IS because he’s been willing to go out there and just ‘do it’. He’s been willing to go his own way, and make his own path. He understood that sometimes the forces of history converge for a perfect storm. if you had told me in 2004 that the lead contender for The Presidency was going to be a Black man, I would have LMAO at the notion, plain and simple. But, George W. Bush fucked this country to such a degree that it made the impossible, probable. I wish he could have run during better times, because, if he wins, the expectations would be enormous. But, that’s the Pollyanna in me talking. The realist who’s followed politics since she was 12 knows damn well that this country would NEVER EVER EVER consider a Black man for President during good times. That the country would have to be so f’ed up that the folks would throw up their arms and go, ‘ damn, well, maybe we ought to give the Black guy a chance’. I don’t trust Dark Sith Ford, and neither should you, Black Snob. He TRULY lied on his own Grandmother to get White folks’ votes…and kept Snowflake hidden in the basement during his Senate run…Trust him at your peril.

  11. Hmm …very intresting. I too don’t really care too much for Ford. He just comes off like one of the phony, hoity-toity type negroes. And his penchant for blondes also marr my impression of him, I guess. LOL.It’s intresting tho, that people call Obama “light” yet there’s a strong contrast in Obama’s color compared to the fair-skinned Ford. Just goes to show you how relative someone’s apperance is.

  12. Heavy sigh. It’s too bad that Ford recently married.I’m somewhat confused by much of this speculation. The guy is in charge of the DLC! Being in charge of “everyone”, he is not in a “good” position to privately or publicly endorse someone. I mean, has Howard Dean done so as yet? No. This doesn’t make sense because his DNC position is also in charge of “everyone”.If you review the tapes, Charlie Rose did try–very hard–to get Ford to say who he would endorse, but to no avail. Thank Gawd; Ford shouldn’t.

  13. Gut feeling: Ford is bitter. I’ve seen him on numerous occasions on Fox and MSNBC and I always have feeling that it is something more than just trying to be neutral. To me, there is an underlying vibe that he secretly wanted Barack to fail, since Ford “was there first”. I do think he is now ready to tie himself to the winner, as evidenced in his appearance last week (or the week before) on Meet the Press. His tune was very different. <A HREF="http://www.chocolatechiq.com/“ REL=”nofollow”>Chocolate Chiq

  14. MoodyThe question isn’t whether or not he should endorse.I could care less if he endorses. The neutrality is not there, he’s been pushing for Hillary and know that it’s clear she can’t win, he’s pushing for a VP spot.

  15. I am a Tennessean from Nashville who campaigned for vigorously for Harold Ford, Jr. I defended him when members of his corrupt family were convicted. I defended him when his opponent accused him of dating blonde haired White women & he denied it (then ended up marrying a one). I made phone call after phone call for him and spent hours canvassing for him. I watched as Barack Obama campaigned with him here in Nashville. To see him sell out Barack on MSNBC throughout this campaign has been very disappointing. Needless to say, if he ever thinks about running for governor here like they say he is going to do, he lost my vote. One of the accusations that had been made against Bill Clinton from the right is that he kept Harold’s uncle from going to jail during his administration. That may be a rumor, but it may also explain Harold’s ruthless throw-Barack-under-the-bus behavior as a talking head.

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